Attacks on science come from multiple angles The War on Science is fought on multiple fronts. This week, Otto guided us through an exploration of the ideological war on science and the industrial war on science.
The Ideological War on Science
Scientists could learn a thing or two from evangelical Christians. Celebrity preachers and popular religious figures relate to their audience personally and emotionally, a feat at which scientists often fail. Scientists must welcome people into their awe-inspiring, life-changing, profound, and, yes, emotional world if we hope to be relatable. Comparing how religious leaders and scientists communicate is one thing; comparing the merits of religion and science is another. Science and religion exists in a false dichotomy, a theme discussed in prior book club meetings and underlined in this section:
"The desire to create knowledge that motivates science ultimately shares some of the same drives as that of its progenitor, religion. Playing to these drives is one way science can reach the masses, by helping them to understand the mystery and wonder of the world and our place in it, to find meaning and hope, and to make life better."
Science does not exist to oust religion. Science exists to explain and understand our natural world. Indeed, many religious people (including scientists) find the discovery process deeply spiritual and enlightening. Scientific wonder can deepen the appreciation for our natural world, which in turn, can deepen a person's faith in the existence of a higher power. As science reveals the beauties and intricacies of the natural world, it never challenges the existence of God. Science tests hypotheses using the scientific method. For a hypothesis to be evaluated, it must be testable and capable of being disproved. The existence of God is an idea taken on faith. No physical method exists to test for the presence of God. Thus, science can never disprove God, and real science will never claim to do so. Big-picture religious ideals are very different than adherence to a fundamentalist belief system. Science can, and has, disproved notions set forth by certain religious groups about the timeline of Earth's formation, for example. This is because a hypothesis such as "the Earth was created 10,000 years ago" is testable.
So we tested it. The ideological war on science is coming from a group of fundamentalists who fail to see the beauty in science and deny the facts of the natural world as they are revealed to us through experimentation and thoughtful observation. Fighting an ideological war seems impossible, and it truly may be impossible to open the minds of a group of people deeply and emotionally invested in clinging to fundamentalist stories. As a scientist and a Catholic (me, not the book club), it is disheartening to see this ideological war on science conflated to a war between religion and science in many media representations. This ideological war may never end, but that doesn't mean that all religious people (most of the world) are at odds with science. To keep it this way, the process of science – the process of discovering the natural wonders of the world – must be discussed openly, with emotion, and with reverence.
The Industrial War on Science
Unlike the ideological war on science, I don't have much sympathy or hope around the industrial war on science. The industrial war on science is a dirty game played by powerful people designed to sow doubt, fear, and uncertainty in our already complicated society. Basically, whenever science uncovers information about our world that may cut into the profits of certain industries, the industries launch strategic public relations campaigns to discredit the scientific claims so they can keep making money.
This is what happened with Big Tobacco in response to scientists uncovering the link between smoking and cancer.
This is what is happening with Big Oil in response to science uncovering the relationship between man and climate change.
Otto mapped out the PR tactics in detail. The responses from big companies are predictable: underline the uncertainties in the studies, bash the scientists, play games with statistics, prey on fears, etc. But no matter how predictable big industry's response to science is, their tactics are scarily effective.
Our book club struggles to understand one particular part of this industrial war: Who, as a person, is so devoid of a moral compass that she/he is willing to intentionally mislead the general public? Who would willfully commit themselves, along with the rest of the world, to a fate stemming from a disrupted global climate? Denying the truth of such a far-reaching issue like man-made climate change hurts all of us – including the willful deniers – in the end. Money (therefore power) is the only practical reason someone would devise these deceptive PR campaigns. The book club realizes that everyone must pay the bills, but we wonder if there is not an alternative in which a person could financially support herself/himself and keep their integrity? So what are we to do? Can science fight the blaze of misinformation with the flame of knowledge? Can we sow the seeds of scientific literacy as effectively as those who sow fear and doubt?
Otto reminds us, "knowledge is power, so it follows that suppression of knowledge to protect vested interests ultimately weakens government." Spreading scientific literacy empowers others to think for themselves. When people can think for themselves and reject the propaganda of vested interests, our democracy is protected. But who can distinguish a single flame amidst a wildfire? Science has evidence and knowledge, but it seems knowledge just doesn't spread as quickly as fear.
Written by Sam Tucci
Edited by Destiny Davis